Collectively representing over 90,000 U of T students, several student unions across all three campuses collectively wrote a letter asking the university to extend the university-mandated leave of absence policy’s (UMLAP) review — previously scheduled to finish in May — until fall 2021. The UMLAP is to be reviewed in its third year of operation — this year — with subsequent reviews as needed. 

A few days after the letter was created, the university announced on March 22 that the consultation timeline will, in fact, be extended to fall 2021, and that the student unions’ request was a factor in its decision. The letter had cited concerns over accessibility for student consultation, including lack of in-person consultation and increasing awareness of the review as issues of the current timeline. 

After the announcement, a U of T spokesperson wrote in an email to The Varsity that the university recognizes the challenges this year has posed to students, and that it shares “[the student unions’] interest in ensuring that students have an opportunity to engage in this review process.”

The policy has been the subject of student criticism and protest since its creation in 2018, and allows U of T to place a student on a leave of absence if the university decides that their mental health poses a risk to themselves or others or is negatively impacting their studies. Among other concerns, critics of the policy say it discourages students from seeking help for mental health issues. 

Student groups have also criticized the original policy for a lack of student consultation. The letter expressed similar sentiments about the review process. 

Joint letter from five unions

Unions involved in the creation of the letter include the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU), the University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union (UTMSU), the Scarborough Campus Students’ Union (SCSU), the Association of Part-time Undergraduate Students (APUS), and the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union.

The joint letter was addressed to Professor Donald Ainslie, who is leading this year’s UMLAP review process. It was also sent to other administrative staff, including U of T Vice-President & Provost Cheryl Regehr; Acting Vice-Provost Students Micah Stickel; and Assistant Dean of Student Success and Career Support Varsha Patel, who is also part of the UMLAP Review Team.

The joint letter asked the university to extend the UMLAP’s review period until fall 2021 to allow for “more thorough consultations and focus groups” to be carried out. 

Additionally, the letter added that this extension will enable in-person discussion about the policy, as U of T is planning on returning to on-campus gatherings and learning in September

Benefits of extended review process

In an email to The Varsity, UTSU Vice-President Public & University Affairs Tyler Riches wrote that they “believe that extending the review process into the fall semester would allow for more students to be aware of and participate in the process, all the way to the Governing Council itself.”

Reasons for this extension stem from students’ concerns about “the punitive nature of the UMLAP,” and difficulties in engaging in the review process due to time zone differences and accessibility issues with internet and technology. 

The letter also noted that the pandemic has posed many mental health difficulties, asserting that many students have been physically, emotionally, and mentally affected by the pandemic and by increases in inequities, social injustice, and hate crimes

In separate emails to The Varsity, both SCSU President Sarah Abdillahi and UTMSU Vice-President Internal Fahad Dayala criticized the timeline of the review, writing that, since many students are not on campus or attending classes over the summer, this is not a good time for the policy to be presented to the Governing Council. 

Likewise, Julian Oliveira, Executive Director of APUS, shared similar concerns about this review period in an email to The Varsity, noting that “the University of Toronto will still be operating primarily online during the summer, which would prevent active student engagement.”

Abdillahi and Dayala described the university’s approach on addressing students’ mental health as “uncompassionate,” highlighting multiple incidents in which students have been taken away in handcuffs when attempting to access mental health resources from the Health & Counselling Centre. 

Now, with an extended review process that lasts through a period when students are not stressed from exams, there will be more time for student unions “to effectively consult their members on UMLAP and voice their concerns and recommendations to the administration,” Riches wrote. “It allows students more time to learn about the UMLAP and participate in the university’s feedback process.” 

“These reviews happen only once every three years, and we want to ensure all students have the ability to participate and share their perspectives and concerns,” concluded Oliveira.

Editor’s note (March 22): This article has been updated to reflect that U of T has extended the consultation period to fall 2021, in line with the request from student unions, and the article has also been updated to include comment from U of T Media Relations.